Book Review: Susanna and the Spy (Susanna and the Spy #1) by Anna Elliott (three stars)

Book Review: Susanna and the Spy (Susanna and the Spy #1) by Anna Elliott (three stars)

Everyone in the Rutherford Household was so very ordinary—so completely what they seemed. Could it really be possible that one of them was a murderer?

Pleasant, if formulaic period romance/mystery. Awkward blend of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Readers interested in a Jane Austen mystery might try Northhanger Abbey.

Verisimilitude errors. “Time for those he works for in London to send word as to his veracity. I should think I have a few weeks, at least, the state of the roads and the mail being what it is.” Kent abuts London; verification could be had overnight. “I’ve been an agent of the Crown since war first broke out with France.” England and France had been at war for centuries.  

Fails to convey the period. Errors in details kick the reader out of the spell of the story. One character sustains several bullet wounds but keeps soldiering on.

Her mission, it appeared, was to call on some of the poorer members of the village and do what she could to scold and bully them into prosperity.

Book Review: Fate and Fortune by Shirley McKay (four stars)

Book Review: Fate and Fortune: a Hew Cullen Mystery # 2 by Shirley McKay (four stars)

‘Your greenness does you credit, I confess. I will be almost sad to see it clouded by experience. Nonetheless, you want to lose a little of that trust.’ 

By far McKay’s best Hew Cullen book yet. More complex plot combines with her signature deep character conflicts propels the story forward. Leavened with humor and affection.

‘Do you wish for the convolute answer, or the straight one?’ ‘Giles, you have never given a straight answer in your life.’ 

Unlike Books 1 and 3, Fate and Fortune highlights the prejudices and incivility of sixteenth-century Scotland. Hew’s rank and humanity are casually stripped away by officialdom and amateurs. His modern sensibilities crash into a stone wall of status quo.

‘Do not give way to bitterness. It is more vicious than the pox, and infectious to the core.’ 

McKay skillfully reveals the villains as Hew remains clueless. Good read.

‘He died,’ Hew whispered wretchedly, ‘and I did not know him.’ ‘And perhaps you never will,’ his friend allowed. ‘Yet we may judge a man as much by how he dies, as how he lives. And a good death, in part, is measured not by how we die, but by what we leave behind.’ 

Book Review: Whitsunday: Visitation by Shirley McKay (four stars)

Book Review: Whitsunday: Visitation (1588: Calendar of Crime #2) by Shirley McKay (four stars)

“For reputation, though tis hard to win, is very quickly lost.”

Though the series hero, Hew Cullan is more an observer than an actor in this novelette of Elizabethan mystery set in St. Andrews, Scotland. The usual misdirection and confusion combine with a nod toward popular superstitions of that day. Especially entertaining is the conclusion matching an actual record of just such a visitation.

“Or is it, in fact, that you believe old Sempill is wanting in his wits? That because I profess myself so frequently perplexed, I do not understand the working of the world? You are not the first to come to that conclusion. But it is a mistake.”

Book Review: The Last Secret of the Temple by Paul Sussman (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Last Secret of the Temple (Yusuf Kalifa #2) by Paul Sussman

(Three Stars)

(Spoiler Warning)

“That’s the problem with the past, isn’t it? It’s never really past. It’s always there. Clinging on. Like a leech. Sucking out the blood.”

“Columbo” does “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Great, if derivative, concept.

‘No object on earth is more sacred to us Continue reading

Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (five stars)


Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

(five stars)

“The authorities still have nothing to say about your girl? Here the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Emergency Situations have been looking for these Russian sisters tirelessly.” “It wasn’t that way with us.”

War and Peace meets Murder She Wrote. Unsolved crimes; parental anguish; ineffectual police; racial, familial, economic, and immigrant issues weave into this complex but tight tale of near-contemporary Russian Kamchatka, which is as close as the modern world gets to terra incognita. Not quite five stars, but close enough.

“You haven’t noticed by now that you can’t trust them? They don’t care about us the same way they care about themselves.”

Readers are propelled deep into not one but two disappearances in places and cultures totally foreign to American readers. No Jessica Fletcher. Despite that, whether intentionally or accidentally, the plot and people feel familiar.

“She spent her youth in the brief reckless period between the Communists’ rigidity and Putin’s strength, and though she had grown into a boundary enforcer … within herself there remained a post-Soviet child. Some part of her did crave the wild.”

The culprit’s identity is apparent halfway through, but not how Phillips will close the story. She does in a very satisfying denouement manner. That issues remain is merely real.

“This is how it went: the closer you were to someone, the more you lied. Telling the truth was a thrill not found with her mother, who needed Olya to take merry care of their household, or with Diana, who made Olya measure herself out by request.”

Readers unfamiliar with Russian naming conventions may be confused, despite Phillips’ helpful list of principal characters. Many characters have three or four names, depending on who is talking. However, it also helps convey the complexity of relationships.

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”


Christ in You, the Hope of Glory

“The only way to see his glory is to tell him to have his way in us.” Kristin Davis

“To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)

Christ’s coming was not a one-time event two thousand years ago. He can be present in you now–as a witness, as a surety, as a guide, as a glory.

Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Four Stars)


Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Four Stars

“You know the secret which is the key to my life.”

Unexpectedly good fiction. As deep and introspective as the best modern storytelling though written 150 years ago. Nineteenth century England produced many treasures apparently hidden to American readers by the glare of modernity. A mystery and a romance, of sorts. Based, as they say today, on a true story.

“Life is such a troublesome matter … that it’s as well even to take its blessings quietly.”

Braddon takes the reader deep into both male and female characters. That all is not as it appears is obvious, but what it turns out to be Continue reading

Book Review: The Christmas Train by David Baldacci (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Christmas Train by David Baldacci, read by Tim Matheson

Four Stars

A fun, seasonal story. The blurb claims Baldacci is “one of America’s most critically acclaimed storytellers.” Never heard of him. It is a good story–mixing (rail)road trip, mystery, romance, humor and advocacy (for increased Amtrak funding). Has a good heart.

A fun read listen. Perfect tale for whiling away the miles on a road trip of my own.

Concern: Current revelations of sexual misconduct in Hollywood are reflected in one character. What goes on is Hollywood, like Las Vegas, is an open secret which our society has winked and Continue reading

Book Review: Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorthy L. Sayers (Two Stars)


Book Review: Lord Peter Views the Body (Lord Peter Wimsey #4) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Two Stars.

“Built noticin’–improved with practice.”

This anthology of early Wimsey shorts reminds me why I hate anthologies. Authors (or, more likely, publishers) sweep up all the bits and pieces of a successful author or authors and foist it on the public as great literature. The resulting collection is often–as in this case–mediocre at best.

“Nobody minds coarseness, but one must draw the line at cruelty.”

Especially avoid the novelette: “The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention.” Dreadful. “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will” will enthrall crossword puzzle enthusiasts, without leaving the rest of us clueless.

“Bunter likes me to know my place.”

Sayers wrote for different readers. She assumes a level of French and Latin literacy rare among Americans today. Wonder how contemporary (1920s) English did.

“It is … dangerous to have a theory.”

Book Review: A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George (Four Stars)

Book Review: A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley #1) by Elizabeth George

Four Stars

“A vestige of time dead, being devoured by time to come.”

Lord Peter Wimsey rides again, sort of. An updated lord-as-sleuth tale with a grittier approach than Dorothy Sayers original from the 1920s. This series, from the 1980s, reflects more modern times, but still the quintessential England of literature and music as much as manors and manners. Not at all a Holmesian tale; much more personal and pyshological. (One hopes the BBC didn’t rape these as they did the Cadfael mysteries.)

“The police were antagonists to be thwarted rather than allies to be helped.”

Deep, complex characters. Everyone has a skeleton, if not a demon, in his or her closet. This book takes the reader deep inside the heads of just about everyone as New Scotland Yard investigates a horrific crime in Yorkshire. (I visited the Yorkshire dales in the late 80s, George’s good descriptions fail to express the bleakness and the beauty. Words fail.) This book is not for the timid or weak stomached. That more than one character vomits is appropriate and realistic. (You’ve been warned.)

“One can’t run forever.” “I can.”

The accents and vocabulary are a bit over-the-top, especially of the Americans, who I’m sure are portrayed just as most British viewed us then. George occasionally slips: “Bob’s your uncle” is not an expression Americans would use.

“The whole situation was an irritating, howling, political maelstrom of thwarted ambition, error and revenge. He was sick of it.”

Americans forget–more likely never knew–that England in the 1980s (when this book was written) was more socially divided that the United States today. Margaret Thatcher’s election set off a cultural war the likes of which we are just now seeing here. English were (I lived in Oxfordshire in the 1980s) much more class conscious. The attitudes expressed by Sergeant Havers were typical of commoners then. English gender attitudes are integral to the plot as well.

“Mothers have a way of taking things a bit personally. Haven’t you noticed?”

The text suffers jarring shifts in point of view, which perhaps were caused or exacerbated by formatting issues. Apparently this edition is an optical scan of the original text; numerous errors have slipped in. (“Shell stand that,” when “She’ll stand that” was obviously meant.) Do all English call speakers amplifiers? As in, “Enormous amplifiers sat in all four corners, creating at the center a vortex of sound.” (I know what council houses, boots and dust bins are; not what Americans think.)

“… before Lot finds me.”

Great writing. Great characterizations. Intense drama and conflict. But also a story of courage and compassion. Quite the climax, and yet plenty gaps are left in our knowledge of Havers and Lynley to engage the reader in his further cases. Looking forward to more.

“Death closes all.”